When you hear the word “nice,” what immediately comes to mind: Pushover? Boring? Weak?
The new book, “The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) written by successful startup investor and media executive Fran Hauser, blows up the negative perception of “niceness” that many women struggle with in the workplace. That is, if you’re too nice, you’re a pushover — if you’re too assertive, you risk being labeled as a bitch.
Hauser argues that harnessing the power of niceness — being kind, authentic and collaborative — can actually propel you to new career heights. “You don’t have to choose between being kind and being strong,” Hauser says. “They’re not mutually exclusive. The most effective leaders lead with both.”
Hauser says her career has been supercharged because of her empathy. “It’s why people call me back, and it’s why people bend over backward for me,” she says, crediting her kindness as one of the reasons she’s been promoted ahead of more experienced candidates over the years.
Hauser had been kicking around the idea for the book for nearly a decade. Over the course of her career, the word “nice” seemed to stick to her, from performance reviews where bosses told her she was “too nice” and needed to “toughen-up” to incredulous questions from the young women she mentored who asked, “How can you be so nice?”
She consulted with other prominent female leaders and drew from personal experience to develop a modern playbook for the office. Here’s how she and other accomplished-and-kind women deal with common pitfalls without resorting to mean-girl tactics.
Nice Girl Rule: Don’t Apologize Too Much
Studies show that women apologize more than men, says Hauser. And when you apologize for a trivial thing (like when someone bumps into you), it puts you in a weak position. Rachel Jo Silver, founder and CEO of Love Stories TV, a Web site for people to binge-watch real couples’ wedding videos, was taught by her mother to stop saying sorry so much.
“‘Sorry’ sounds silly,” she says. “It’s a lazy response. If you really mean it, apologize and change your behavior.”
Hauser suggests scanning each e-mail you write for the word “sorry” before you hit send. (The “Just Not Sorry” Gmail plug-in does it for you.) Replace it with “Thank you,” which is what you really want to get across. For example, “Thank you for being patient, my meeting ran long.”
Nice Girl Rule: Head Off Interruptions
Hauser discovered that changing her body language minimized the chances that someone would interrupt her in meetings. “Be aware of the space that you’re taking up,” she says. “It’s more important than what you’re saying.”
Take up the appropriate amount of space. Stand up, walk around, drape an arm over the back of a chair and make eye contact with people you’re speaking to. And if someone still interrupts you, simply say, “Excuse me, I wasn’t finished.”
Nice Girl Rule: Be Helpful, Not Subservient
If you have den-mother leanings, don’t stifle them once you step into the office, says Jaime Klein, founder and president of Inspire Human Resources, who has no problem cutting the cake at office birthday parties.
“You have to be your authentic self,” she says. “It’s more work to fake it.”
But there’s a difference between doing something thoughtful for your team to show your gratitude (like bringing everyone coffee when they’re burning the midnight oil) and being the designated office errand girl. That’s what happened to one of Hauser’s employees, a young designer who was asked to drop whatever she was doing every afternoon to pick up food for her team. Hauser suggested that the woman talk to her manager about how disruptive the snack runs were. After that, the team kept a sign-in sheet so people could take turns going out for treats.
Nice Girl Rule: Say No Gently
The people-pleasing struggle is real for nice girls, says Hauser, but taking on too much when you’re already slammed can lead to shoddy work, resentment and burnout. When a request or obligation pops up that doesn’t align with your priorities, turn it down with what she describes as a “kind no.”
In Hauser’s case, she often gets asked to help various charities. “I start the e-mail in a positive way, expressing gratefulness for being asked,” she says. Then, she explains why the request is not in her “sweet spot.” For example, if an animal charity solicited donations from her for an auction, Hauser would say that her main nonprofit focus is on women and children, and while she’ll have to decline, she can make the appropriate introductions.
The gap between men’s and women’s salaries is still hovering around 20 percent. A recent study of MBA graduates found that half the male graduates negotiated their first job offers, while only an eighth of the women did. As a result, the men had starting salaries that were an average of 7.6 percent higher than the women’s.
Hauser recommends that women shouldn’t wait for their annual performance review to ask for a raise. Instead, bring it up three to four months before your review so your boss will know what’s coming and so you can prepare your talking points. Arm yourself with a list of your wins and data on how much someone in your position makes at other firms. But come to the table with empathy. Always link what you want (more money, more staff) with what your company wants (an efficient team). If you get stuck, ask, “How can we make this work?”
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